He remembers a whole world opening up when he found an underground art studio, where he had an amazing mentor who had access to literature from the West: newspapers, magazines, books and music were smuggled into the country. He was exposed to the American and British rock bands, the Beatles, the Bee Gees, Jethro Tull, and Led Zeppelin.
Becoming aware of western popular culture transformed Milan Heger’s life. He says, “My eyes opened to see that an authoritarian force wanted to limit my understanding of the whole world. All of a sudden something boiled over for me and at that moment, freedom became my central fight and the main topic of my art even until today.”
His passion to study art by going to art school was not an option. “I realized that I wanted to study in the free world, and I couldn’t,” he says. Authoritarian regimes always target artists—for they are the most likely to speak the truth and shirk off oppression. There are safety nets, though. Building infrastructure is a pragmatic solution often girded by fierce loyalty to the reigning communists who are remarkably good at understanding the need for buildings but not necessarily for understanding the need for art. Heger had little recourse but to study architecture at Slovak Technical University, where he earned an M.S. in Architecture and Engineering. Within the strict confines of communism, he founded the private design firm, FreeART, that focused on design, interiors, and architecture. Heger recalls, “I wanted to do interesting projects and even when we won prizes for our architectural recognition, we were not allowed to receive the prize. We could not travel through the Iron Curtain to the West.”
Heger could not suppress his love of art or freedom, both of which had come to mean the same thing. Hiding one’s drive and talent to create art is the equivalent of hiding one’s love under a bushel and the same as denying one’s own freedom. Milan Heger surreptitiously pursued private art lessons with Ernest Fisher in Budapest, keeping his eye fixed on a race he knew he would run, his personal trifecta: Art. Freedom. Love.
Perestroika (“restructuring” in Russian) came along in 1978 to spur growth in the Soviet Union’s economy, but it also relaxed the social, cultural and political stranglehold that had plagued the eastern bloc countries for years. Milan Heger was able to obtain a visa to lecture abroad in an exchange program. “Things were getting a little looser,” he says. “There was an opportunity for me to be a visiting professor in Hawaii. I wanted to see Hawaii. It was the Gauguin in me.” Heger chuckles, noting that he wanted to see paradise, the same way Paul Gauguin had a yen to go to Tahiti.